A champion is crowned at the 2011 Japanese Grand Prix [spoilers]
On the home stretch of such a dominant campaign, and with five races still to go before the end of the season, Vettel's lead had grown so insurmountable as to have practically crowned him World Champion already. Almost, anyway, as just one point would be all he'd need to lock up the title in Japan. And if Jenson Button – his closest rival – would not win the race, Vettel wouldn't even need that point. It was pretty much a given, then, that Vettel would claim the title for the second year running. But his rivals wouldn't make it easy for him. Follow the jump to read how it went down.
Saturday's qualifying once again set the stage here at Suzuka, with Vettel taking pole position once more. Beside him, though, lined up Jenson Button, the one driver who could postpone the inevitable, having set his time less than one hundredth of a second behind Vettel's. Hamilton qualified third after a Q3 mishap, followed by Massa and Alonso, Webber, Schumacher, Senna, Petrov and Kobayashi to round out the top ten. Nico Rosberg, having failed to make it to qualifying, started near the back of the grid in 23rd place.
Vettel showed no sign of easing into his title when he nearly punted Button off the track from the starting line. The incident was investigated by the race stewards but no penalty was given. That left Button in third behind his teammate Hamilton, who followed Vettel around the opening laps in what was a race start otherwise largely without incident.
The first round of pit stops came at lap 9 on a track that is particularly hard on tires. Aside from a close-fought battle towards the middle of the pack between Maldonado, Alguersuari and Kobayashi (who suffered a dismal start) for 13th position, little transpired until the second round of pit stops came around lap 20.
Vettel and Webber headed in to the Red Bull pit box in tandem, but while the crew dispatched them in quick succession, it wasn't quick enough: Button pitted soon after and rejoined to take the lead from Vettel.
Massa and Hamilton played out their animosity once again around lap 22 as the two had a minor collision in the chicane, spreading debris that saw the safety car deployed for three laps. This incident, too, was investigated, but no penalty was meted out.
Sutil and Rosberg had closed in on Petrov in tenth place around lap 30, but both managed to get by – Sutil in impressive style around the outside into turn 1.
With just eight seconds covering the top six places, Vettel pitted from second place to rejoin way down in eleventh, forcing him to fight his way back up the field through frustratingly heavy traffic. After Button followed for his third stop, he rejoined in third, well ahead of Vettel. Alonso then pitted from the lead and passed Vettel, too. The defending champion chased Alonso but couldn't get by as the Ferrari closed the gap on Button in the lead.
Across the line, Button took the checkered flag, which would have been enough to postpone Vettel's coronation had the German not come in third place behind Alonso, who took his eighth podium of the season. And so Button hoisted the first-place trophy as Vettel claimed his second consecutive World Championship. With that, Vettel becomes the youngest multiple World Champion in F1 history, adding that accolade to a resume that has already seen him become youngest World Champion, youngest runner-up, race leader, points scorer, podium finisher, pole sitter and race winner in the history of the sport.
And so we sail from Japan to South Korea, for the sixteenth of nineteen races on the calendar, with the Championship already decided. But with Button, Alonso and Webber close together in the standings with 210, 202 and 194 points, respectively, who will emerge as runner-up by season's end? Join us in one week's time as the battle continues.
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